Mi / 10:00 – 11:30

Water / and / being / sufficient

The Stakes of Continuum in M. NourbeSe Philip’s Zong!

Tom Allen, KWI International Fellow

Online (Zoom) & Institute for Advanced Study in the Humanities Essen (KWI), Room 106, Goethestr. 31, 45128 Essen

This presentation aims to do two things. The first is to present an overview of the broader project, Care for Trapped Literature and the Critique of Insurance. Allen will begin the presentation by introducing the general scope of this project and its points of focus in literary studies, Critical Theory, and economic history. Following this, he focusses on a close reading of M. NourbeSe Philip’s 2009 publication Zong!. This book of hermetic, opaque, and nonetheless lyrical poems is composed exclusively from words used in Gregson v. Gilbert. The manuscript in question provides a record of the insurance trial related to the so-called Zong massacre of November 1781 in which over one hundred and twenty people were jettisoned alive off the coast of Jamaica because, as claimed at the time and subsequently by those campaigning for the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade, their value as insured commodities exceeded the value they were expected to fetch at market.

In particular, Allen will focus on Philip’s suggestions that this event exists in a continuum with contemporary North American anti-black violence and mass incarceration. He aims to elaborate the material history underpinning this speculative continuum via a consideration of the evolution of notions of risk, character alongside innovations in technologies of surveillance, and actuarial calculation. He will argue at the same time, however, that Zong! as a work of poetry disrupts this continuum and, in doing so, reintroduces elements of repressed contingency into what may otherwise read as a fatalistic progression from the hold to the prison cell. In doing so, Allen aims to illustrate one of the key claims of his overall project: that certain aesthetic representations of what Francois Ewald has termed “the insurantial imaginary” – defined as the uses to which technologies of insurance are put in any one historical period – enable one to grasp important elements of the social relations underpinning this imaginary and to envisage their transformation into something different and better.